ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Vulnerability Levels of Sewerage Workers in Vijayawada Municipal Corporation

The living and working conditions of sewerage workers in the Vijayawada Municipal Corporation were documented through a sample survey of 98 workers. The Other Backward Classes and Other Caste workers outnumbered those from the Scheduled Castes, refuting the caste-based view of this occupation even while reflecting the precarious employment situation of the unskilled in Andhra Pradesh. A sizeable proportion of workers are on contract or on a timescale without any social security benefits. The working conditions, work-induced health disorders, and non-provision of safety equipment at worksites are the main reasons for the vulnerable working conditions. Low levels of education, lack of skills, and limited opportunities in the labour market restrict their mobility vertically and horizontally. About 70% of them reported financial insecurity.








The concept of vulnerability is associated with poverty, but it can also arise when the community is isolated, insecure, and defenceless in the face of risk, shock, or stress (IFRC 2015).1 Those communities/households with a high degree of vulnerability are likely to suffer for long, and it is only with multiple support systems, such as external assistance/safety nets, improved access to resources, quality governance, and skill upgradation, that they can move out of vulnerability (IFRC and PRCS 2001). The term “vulnerability” encompasses both biophysical and social processes that combine to produce susceptibility to loss and harm and obstacles to recovery (Wisner et al 2012). The household-specific characteristics, including the age of the household head, lack of education, and little access to resources, provide an explanation to the variations in vulnerability levels within a community. Robert Chambers (1983: 112) formally introduced the term “vulnerability” into the analysis of rural poverty and referred to an “interlocking condition of five elements resulting in [a] deprivation trap, a condition of ‘integrated rural poverty’ from which it is very difficult to extract oneself.”2 Vulnerability is, thus, conceptualised as a mix of multiple complex factors that, individually or collectively, exposes its subjects to shocks and limits their capacity to handle/absorb the shocks (Wisner 2016). It is a human condition that is likely to undergo changes (Berzins McCoy 2013). Better insights into the life of vulnerable people, including the constraints they face along with economic and political marginality, are useful for the design of policies to reduce vulnerability (Chambers 1989). The research studies on vulnerable communities should focus on the sources and consequences of vulnerability as well as identify the factors that reduce vulnerability levels.

Anagha Ingole (2016) has shown that one of the most vulnerable worker groups in urban India are scavengers and sewerage workers and that it is the Scheduled Caste (SC) households that are predominantly engaged in this occupation. It was reported that sewerage workers suffer from untouchability and different forms of discrimination. The multiple deprivations facing this community’s workers keep them arrested in chronic poverty. The deplorable working conditions of sewerage/scavenging workers in Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Pune were documented (Planning Commission 2014). The subgroup on safai karamcharis (sanitation workers) for the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012–17) had delineated the conditions of these worker households and expressed concern over the issue of human dignity. It underscored, for persons engaged in sewer works, the need for strict implementation of all provisions under various labour laws, additional safety measures given the nature of risk associated with this occupation, welfare measures to bring them on par with others, and technical upgradation and modernisation of the underground drainage system.

One big problem to develop policies for the welfare of sewage and septic tank workers is the lack of statistical data. There are no statistics available on those employed in sewer and septic tank cleaning, whereas some official data exist on those engaged in the relatively less risky occupation of cleaning dry latrines, open drains, and single pit toilets (Hindustan Times 2018). Sewerage schemes are administered through the Swachha Andhra Corporation, which has been exclusively established to deal with sanitation and solid waste management matters across the 110 urban local bodies and 13 municipal corporations of Andhra Pradesh. As per the House Listing and Housing Census 2011, the Registrar General of India has not provided any data regarding the number of sewerage workers in Andhra Pradesh. However, out of the total number of households with unsanitary latrines, the number of households with (i) manually serviced latrines and (ii) latrines discharging excreta into open drains is 0.1 and 1.7 lakh, respectively (total 1.8 lakh) (Planning Commission 2014). The livelihood vulnerability of sewerage workers in Andhra Pradesh is compounded with their low social status ascribed to the submarginal or poor conditions of work. The state has devised several schemes under the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan (SCSP) to improve the well-being of the SCs, but the underutilisation of funds tacitly raises several questions regarding the problems being encountered in accessing these schemes.

This paper addresses some of these questions with reference to the sewerage workers of the Vijayawada Municipal Corporation (VMC). Specifically, this work shall document the socio-economic profiles of the sewerage workers of the VMC and examine their working conditions with special reference to safety measures and capacity-building initiatives. Further, we shall study their awareness levels regarding the social safety nets and welfare schemes meant for them and the extent of utilisation for economic security as well as record the perceptions of these workers regarding the changes in social–psychological relations and stigma associated with this occupation. Finally, we shall work out the levels and determinants of vulnerability of sewerage workers.

Secondary data were collected from the VMC and also from a few contractors/companies in regard to the number of sewerage workers, caste and sub-caste composition, pay structure, terms and conditions of engagement, the type of facilities provided at the worksite, etc. A list of sewerage workers (223) in the three divisions of the VMC was prepared. Of these, nearly one-third (83) belonged to the SC community.3 Contrary to normal expectation, a higher proportion of workers were from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) (98), followed by the Other Caste (OC) (36) communities.4 The circle-wise sewerage workers were regrouped based on employment status, that is, permanent, timescale, and contract. Since the main aim of the paper is to discuss the working and living conditions of sewerage workers belonging to the SC community, all the 83 SC sewerage workers were selected for the study. For the purpose of comparison of the working and living conditions of these workers vis-à-vis sewerage workers of OCs, 15 workers out of 134 OCs and OBCs were randomly selected for the study. Semi-structured interviews were held with senior- and field-level officials of the VMC and a few companies on certain qualitative parameters. A structured schedule was developed and administered to the sample of sewerage workers, and a few focus group discussions (FGDs) were held to elicit their views. The indices of working and living conditions were worked out besides the indices of vulnerability. A regression model was adopted to identify the significant determinants.

Sewerage Workers at VMC

The sample of this study consists of 98 workers, 83 from the SC group, and 15 randomly selected from the OBC and OC groups. They are all male. The modal age group of the sample workers was 20–40 years. Only 3% of the workers were illiterate, while the others had accessed schooling variously for 1–17 years. The mean years of schooling was 4.1 years, which suggests incomplete primary education. The work experience varied from seven days to 39 years, and the average years of experience was about 13 years. Most of them were aged and contract workers, that is, without social security. Due to the shortage of humanpower, the workload has been mounting on the existing staff who have been made to work extra hours sans any special allowance/perks or leaves. Of these sample workers, hardly 7% were in a supervisory status. More than one-fourth of the OBC and OC workers were supervisors as against 4% of the SC workers. All the SC workers were from the Relli community. Most supervisors were permanent employees and belonged to the OBC and OC category. About 27% of the OBCs were in the supervisor category and only 5% of SCs were in that category. Nearly 20% of the sample workers were permanent workers, 8% were timescale employees, while the rest were contract workers (Table 1).

The mode of wage payment was online transfer, and about 70% of workers reported no delays in the payment of wages. Only 1% of workers received special allowance/perks. The workers reported that they worked for 8 to 12 hours during the day shift. During the night shifts, the hours of work varied between 6 and 12; a few did not take part in night shifts. The salary of contract workers—newly appointed ones and senior workers (with over 10 years of experience)—was the same (about `9,000) as paid by the contractors. The timescale employees earned about `15,000 from the VMC, with a take-home salary ranging between `11,000 and `12,000. Such employees’ households were considered non-poor and thereby denied white ration cards, access to the YSR Aarogyasri Health Scheme, school fee reimbursement, and other facilities.5 The terms and conditions of these two categories of workers were undefined, and there were no promotional avenues and annual increments. The permanent employees got their salaries from the VMC as per the pay scale and received annual increments and other benefits.

The sewerage workers faced several problems in accessing health services. These included forfeiting the day’s salary for a hospital visit, the indifferent approach of doctors in the Employees’ State Insurance Scheme (ESIs) hospitals, etc. Due to their inability to go to private hospitals for treatment, they either neglected their health issues or were forced to take loans from non-institutional sources of credit at exorbitant rates of interest to afford private healthcare. None of the sewerage employees were registered under any health insurance scheme. To prevent hazards at work and reduce the physical drudgery, machines were introduced. However, a few of them were not functional due to the lack of repairs, whereas the existing number, too, was inadequate to serve the entire municipal corporation area. Further, safety equipment such as protective gear, face masks, goggles, liquid repellents, and rubber boots, has to be provided at the workplace periodically. However, very few workers were provided safety equipment. The few that did receive it were not issued replacements after the first one was no longer fit for use (see Table 4 [p 116] for details). Workers, across social groups, who did use modern equipment at the worksite found it useful.

Workers reported that the public still perceives the sewerage occupation as signifying low social status. This was echoed by 98% of all workers. However, the working relations with other workers of the VMC were better and friendly (36%), while others opined that such relationships were either neutral (59%) or hostile (5%). Half of the workers informed that their relations with officials of the VMC were either cooperative (34%) or functional (50%), while 16% of them felt that these relationships were more of an authoritarian nature. A great amount of subordination was reported, with workers displaying fear of senior officials, namely the assistant engineer and divisional engineer. The OBC and OC workers enjoyed relatively better functional relations with officials. More than one-third of the workers strongly felt that other community members would be willing to be their neighbours. However, in this regard, 57% of the workers were indecisive.

Persons from the SC community not engaged in sewerage work were averse to have marital relations with those in sewerage work. This view was shared by 80% of the sample SC workers, although 6% expressed that others were willing to do so. According to 43% of the workers, there was no violence against SC women and girls, while others were not sure of such happenings. The children of this community earlier suffered from the practice of social discrimination in schools, but the scenario has been changing as 40% of the sample workers informed that such events no longer occur. About 90% of workers endorsed that the mechanisation of sewerage work facilitated positive image-building and improved health of sewerage workers to some extent. Yet, the youth (new entrants to the labour force) did not evince interest in taking up sewerage work and were keen on shifting to other fields of work.

Index of Working Conditions

The index of working conditions (IWC) was constructed with four components: (i) wage-related aspects, such as hours of work, allowances for additional work, delays in wage payment, and mode of payment; (ii) the provision and use of safety equipment; (iii) perceived safety at the workplace; and (iv) the nature of work leading to health disorders. The values of the IWC are shown in Table 2.

In all, about 21 indicators (Annexure 1, p 120) were selected to reflect the conditions. All the indicators are either binary in nature or those with a maximum score of one. All four areas are treated as equally important. The higher the score on the IWC, the better is the working condition.

Housing, quality, and amenities: About 35% of workers owned houses, while the rest lived in rental accommodation. The ownership percentages across caste groups were as follows: 20% among the OCs and OBCs, 36% among the Rellis, and 42% among the Madigas. As far as the quality of housing was concerned, 46% of these houses were kutcha (thatched roof) type, another 42% were semi-pucca (brick walls with thatched roof), while hardly 12% workers lived in pucca (brick and concrete) houses. Nearly 72% of these dwellings were located in notified slums, while over 70% of the Madigas and Rellis lived in unnotified slums. Almost all these houses had tap connections, electricity, and toilet facility within the habitation.

Assets and income: Very few worker households had some agricultural (3%) and non-agricultural (10%) land, respectively. The worker households earned incomes from different sources. The data on household income (source-wise) and per capita income are presented in Tables 3 and 4. The income earnings of other members of the family were impressive, and it increased with the increase in incomes of the sewerage worker. The wives of most of these workers participated as casual workers in non-agricultural activities and their contribution to household income was significant among contract and timescale employee households. Some workers were engaged in multiple occupations in the labour market, with sewerage work as the principal occupation. This needs to be construed as an indication of the economic insecurity of these households.

None of the worker households were in poverty as determined by the official poverty line in 2016–17.6 However, adopting the state below poverty line (BPL) norm of `1.5 lakh, the percentage of BPL households was 26.7%, 17.8% and 23%, respectively, among the OCs and OBCs, Rellis, and Madigas. Household expenditure is a better indicator of welfare, and for 30% of the households, the expenditure exceeded the income. The shares of important commodity groups in household expenditure are presented in Table 5. A lion’s share of household expenditure (almost 50%) was on food items. About 13%–16% of the expenditure was towards house rent. The SC workers incurred over 5% of expenditure on health services and about 9%–10% on transport. While FGDs revealed that most workers were addicted to intoxicants, the sample survey data did not support this view as a number of workers reported such consumption was less. It was observed in the field that workers spent substantial amounts on liquor, tobacco, and tobacco products, such as cigarettes, gutkha, flavoured chewing tobacco, and different types of paan.


Social capital: The social capital in this exercise was confined to membership in formal and informal organisations, which was not high, as a majority of them were not members of workers’ associations and community-based organisations (CBOs)/self-help groups (SHGs) (Table 6). Even among the members, only a small proportion of workers held formal positions. As a result, their participation in meetings and decision-making processes is less. The main reasons for not taking part in these organisations included a lack of awareness, including the advantages of participating in these organisations as well as a lack of interest and time. Some of them were not confident that these associations would protect their interests. But, as members, they took part, occasionally, in the meetings of the workers’ association, political parties, and CBOs. Those participating members perceived that their participation was useful.

Almost 90% of the workers were not in debt. For sources of credit and outstanding debt, see Annexure 2 Table A1 (p 120). The Scheduled Commercial Banks (SCBs) have provided loans to 26% of the workers, and the bulk of these loans were taken for housing and towards medical treatment. The percentage of loans for productive purpose (loans for working capital and investment) was 7%. Among the indebted, 12% received loans from cooperatives, and all these loans were for unproductive purposes. Workers also received loans from non-institutional sources, whereas 30% of the workers were indebted to SHGs and a bulk of them (67%) were for unproductive purposes. The workers had little access to moneylenders wherein 5% of them borrowed for unproductive causes, while 1% took loans for productive purposes. The most important source of borrowed funds for workers app­eared to be “friends and relatives” since 60% of the workers took loans mostly for unproductive purposes. About 35% of the workers reported that they could get adequate and hassle-free credit; such percentage was about 56%, 36%, and 40%, respectively, among the OBCs and OCs, Rellis, and Madigas. These debts were cumulative in nature. The average outstanding loan per indebted worker household was `3.23 lakh for the OC and OBC workers, `2.48 lakh for the Rellis, and `1.5 lakh for the Madigas. The interest rate varied with the change of credit source and purpose. The modal interest for bank and cooperative loans was 12%–18%, and in the case of SHGs, 12%. Moneylenders, relatives and friends charged interest as high as 60%, and the modal interest rates were around 30%–36%.


Savings and insurance: The important sources of savings and insurance (Annexure 3, Table A2 [p 120]) for workers were the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation or the General Provident Fund, SHGs, and the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC). Most savings were made every month. The Chandranna Bima Yojana (CBY) scheme, with an annual premium of `15, was accessed by 36% of the workers. Due to the lack of awareness and ineligibility, several other workers could not get into this scheme. Only 8%–10% of the workers were enrolled under the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY) by paying a premium of `12 per annum. The health and other insurance schemes were not popular among these workers. The workers were made to visit several times when they went to apply for government welfare schemes, like the PMSBY, Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY), CBY, etc. Furthermore, as most employees had no knowledge about various welfare schemes, they were not covered under any of them. Due to the lack of knowledge about schemes and time, none of them had benefited from SC associations or social welfare department, including the Scheduled Caste Corporation therein.

About 23% of these households had bank accounts under the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), of which 26% were from the OC and OBC communities, 23% from the Relli community, and about 20% from the Madigas community. However, all of them had bank accounts and Aadhaar cards. About 62% were covered under health schemes, mainly the ESIS (93%). Most of these health cards were sponsored by the agency/company. About 80% of these households had ration cards, of which 98% belonged to the OBC and OC groups, 76% to the Rellis, and 80% to the Madigas. Of these, 82% possessed white ration cards, while 17% held pink ration cards. Only 32% reported that they were financially secure, of which 28% were among the SCs.


Social safety nets: The state and central governments have devised several welfare schemes to reduce the vulnerability of sewerage workers and more so of the SC households under the SCSP. The awareness of workers with regard to 25 schemes, covering food security, health, education, training, housing, and socially and economically disadvantaged spheres, was ascertained for this paper. Further, their access to the relevant schemes was also recorded. The efficiency of the delivery system was assessed by user satisfaction. The indices were constructed in respect of awareness, access, and satisfaction of the workers, the details of which can be seen in Annexure 4 (p 120) and the score on these indices in Table 7. It is evident that awareness levels were high (76.7%), but workers were not able to fully access the schemes appropriate to them. Thus, the safety net index was about 55%. The satisfaction from those who availed the schemes was good (90%).

Vulnerability and Determinants

Vulnerability is concerned with “the likelihood of being exposed to hazards/shocks” and “their capacity to withstand them which relates to their socio-economic circumstances” (Schneiderbauer and Ehrlich 2004: 13). It refers to the chances of leading to low standards of living or poor quality of life. The factors that can drive a household to such a deprived situation together constitute “vulnerability” and are considered for the construction of the index. The vulnerability index was constructed along 23 indicators, detailed in Annexure 1. The vulnerability index values lie between 0 and 23. Keeping the theoretical range, all those workers with scores less than nine were classified as less vulnerable, and those with values between nine and 16 were considered as moderately vulnerable. The rest were treated as highly vulnerable and none were in this group. About four-fifths of the SC workers were in the moderately vulnerable category and two-thirds of the OBC and OC workers belonged to this category.

The classification of worker households was made by the employment status and vulnerability levels and these results were shown in Table 8. It is to be noted that almost 62% of permanent workers were in the moderately vulnerable category. Thus, the vulnerability of sewerage workers was deep-rooted.

To reduce the vulnerability levels of sewerage workers, the factors that significantly influenced vulnerability were identified using multiple regression (for dummy variables, suppre­ssed categories are permanent employees, households without ration card, worker position, and households with a single source of income). The results are given below:

Vulnerability Index = 12.848 + 0.021nsTimescale Emp. + 1.827*** Contract Emp. - 0.16*** Awareness Index - 1.52***
Ration Card - 1.415** Supervisor Status - 0.679* MSI + 0.049 **PEI + 2.439 FMCA

Adj R= 0.45, F = 11.45***;

ns: not significant; ** and *** indicate significance at the 0.05 and 0.01 levels.

MSI: monthly savings and investment; PEI: % of expenditure on intoxicants; FMCA: family member with chronic ailment.

The most vulnerable group was the contract employees and, ceteris paribus, the vulnerability index will be higher by 1.83 points compared to other groups. The awareness of government welfare schemes and the possession of ration cards (as a proxy to food security) could reduce vulnerability significantly. The promotion to supervisory status of the eligible would improve their financial/economic security, and the access to multiple sources of income would reduce vulnerability. So, efforts should be made to provide supplementary employment opportunities or secure em­­ploy­­­ment. Those households with the presence of chronically ill members and higher expenditure on intoxicants (tob­­acco and liquor) enhance their vulnerability. So, assured quality healthcare by health department officials is necessary, and non-gov­ernmental organisations can be entrusted with sensitisation and educating alcohol addicts on its adverse effects.

The vulnerability to quality life indices reveals that about 79% were moderately vulnerable, and it can be reduced through improved awareness and better access to general welfare and SC-spe­cific programmes, provision of multiple livelihoods, issue of ration cards in particular white cards, reduction of expenditure on intoxicants, and quality healthcare for all members of the family.

Concluding Remarks

All social groups participated in sewerage work, which was traditionally considered as a caste-based (specifically Dalit) occupation. The processes of urbanisation, modernisation, and education have led to the changes in attitudes. It also indicates that the labour market conditions in the state were deplorable. Most of these workers were on contract basis with low pay and without any social security. Those on timescale were deprived of some social safety nets such as the public distribution system (PDS) ration cards (white) and the Aarogyasri cards. The safety measures at the worksite have been reported to be suboptimal and the prevailing work-induced health disorders testify amply for the former. The authoritarian attitude of the officials towards the temporary staff compounded by low pecuniary benefits depicts the vulnerable working conditions. The reduction in social distances between these worker households and other SCs and friendly relations with other workers are an indication of social change, though at a slow pace. The incidence of violence on SC women and girls and the discriminatory practices were on the decline.

The standards of living provide a mixed picture and a yawning gap on several socio-economic indicators that need to be bridged. The fact that most of the worker households were either less or moderately vulnerable is a solace. The development administration has to be more empathetic towards the working and living conditions of the sewerage workers and initiate necessary measures for the improved well-being of these households.


Vulnerability is defined as an ex- ante poverty situation given the household characteristics and time-invariant factors. Panel data were used to assess the households’ ability to smoothen their consumption against shocks/income fluctuations over space and time (Townsend 1994; Jalan and Ravallion 1999). Vulnerability refers to the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural hazard (an extreme natural event or process) (Wisner et al 2012).

2 The other elements included political powerlessness, physical weakness (ill health), isolation, and income poverty.

3 Among the SCs, workers belonged to the Relli (56), Madiga (26), and Mala (1) castes. Accordingly, sub-caste comparison for SCs was carried out only for the Relli and Madiga castes.

4 The category of Other Caste in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is used to refer to those castes that do not fall in the list of SCs, Scheduled Tribes, and the OBCs. They are typically referred to as general or open category in other parts of the country.

5 The Government of Andhra Pradesh has implemented the YSR Aarogyasri Health Scheme through the Aarogyasri Health Care Trust. The scheme provides financial assistance to BPL families for healthcare expenses up to `5 lakh per family per annum from empanelled Network Hospitals.

6 The official poverty line as estimated by the Tendulkar Committee formula, adjusted for inflation, is `1,352 per capita per month.


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Updated On : 19th Jun, 2022
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